Many writing instructors use a freewriting exercise at the beginning of each class. It's a way of getting the brain in gear, and it's an exercise you can do on your own, safe to try in your own home. (We provide an interactive page for this exercise, see below.) Write down a topic at the top of that empty page. It can be either a one-word topic — like "Dentists," for example — or a brief statement of the topic you've chosen or been given to write about. Set the clock for five to ten minutes and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and go at it. Write as fast as you can; the faster the better. You are not allowed to stop writing! If you can't think of anything to say, write down that you can't think of anything to say, something like: "I'm stuck but I'll think of something soon." Don't stop. Don't worry about transitions or connecting the ideas or paragraphing or subject-verb agreement or even commas. And form absolutely no judgment about what you write. Your Censor is on vacation. Your writing may take you in some really weird directions, but don't stop and never think to yourself, "Oh, this is dumb!" If you get off the subject, that's all right. Your divagation may end up somewhere wonderful. Just keep writing. Do not criticize yourself and do not cut or scratch out or revise in any way. Many instructors suggest that at the end of the timed period, you should write one sentence IN ALL CAPS that takes you back to where you started — something to do with dentists.

It's probably a good idea to read your freewriting out loud when you're done with it. Often the ear will pick up some pattern or neat idea that you hadn't noticed even as you wrote it. Read your freewriting to a friend or have your friend read it out to you. Your friend might think you're insane, but that's all right. Then it's time to spend just a couple of minutes going through the freewriting with an aim toward casual rewriting. The word-processor is a big advantage here. Delete the "I can't think of anything to say" lines and the pure nonsense. Are any ideas or patterns emerging?

Don't give up on freewriting after one exercise. Many students think that it's boring or stupid at first and come to love it after a week or so of exercises. Freewriting is like any other kind of mental activity: you will get better at it. The first couple of times you try it, perhaps nothing will come of it. After a few efforts, though, the exercise will become liberating. Just as you would never start to play tennis or jog without stretching a bit first, you will never try to write again without doing a bit of freewriting first. Sometimes, even in the middle of an essay, when stuck for the next idea, you can do a bit of freewriting to get you going again.

Here's a five-minute example of free-writing on the subject of dentists written by an older student, Thruston Parry, who has given us permission to use his work:


I hate going to the dentist. I'm always afraid that they're going to hurt me, and I'm not very good at pain, at tolerating pain, I mean. I remember the first time,w hen I was a kid, going to the dentists, it seemed I never went to the dentist when I was a kid until I had a toothache, that's my parents fault, isn't it, I guess. They should have taken better care of my teeth when I was little, and then I wouldn't have so much grief now with my teeth. But back then I would go to the dentists and he would have this godawful drill that would make this awful noise and it seemed like it always hurt. I remember there was this sign in his office that said PAINLESS DENTIST, UPSTAIRS, but there was no upstairs in his building. Some joke, huh? I can't think of anything to say, and I can't think of anything more to say. Oh, I wonder how come anyone in his right might mind would ever want to become a dentist, putting his fingers into other people's mouths all day, all that spit and blood and not there's the fear of getting AIDS from your clients that they have to wear those rubber gloves and I hate the feel of those things in my mouth, too, and the sound of that thing that draws the spit out of your mouth. I wonder why my folks didn't take me to the dentist BEFORE i had trouble. Probably because when they were growing up it was bad times and they didn't have any money for things like the dentist and it was just taken for granted that you were going to get cavieties and lose a lot of teeth before you were even an adult. I can't think of anything more to say. I can't think of anything more to say. all I know is that when I have kids, they're going to the dentist every six months whether they want to or not and maybe by then they'll have invented some way to absolutely prevent cavities and maybe there won't even be any dentists or if there are it'll just be to clean your teeth and make sure they're straight and pearly white and we won't worry about cavities and stuff like that that causes pain anymore. DENTISTS, MY ATTITUDE HAS CHANGED AS I GOT OLDER.

Looking back over this paragraph, do you see any ideas that might lend themselves toward an essay on dentists or at least the beginnings of one? Why would one want to become a dentist? or some other "unpleasant" line of medical work (even worse than dentistry)? How have attitudes toward going to the dentist changed over the years? Will better toothpastes, etc. eventually make dentists obsolete? How do dentists cope with the threat of AIDS? Is it a real threat?

Click HERE for a blank text-area, complete with automatic line-wrapping and ten-minute timer, where you can practice, online, your own freewriting. You might have to click in the upper left-hand corner of the text-area to make your typing cursor appear. When the ten-minute period expires, the page disappears, but you can get back to it by clicking on your browser's BACK button. Also, you can erase your text by clicking on the button at the bottom of the text-area. Use the following hyperlinks if you prefer an Eight-Minute Timer or a Five-Minute Timer or an Untimed Exercise.

TEACHER'S NOTE: "Freewriting: A Means of Teaching Critical Thinking to College Freshmen," an excellent paper on the uses of freewriting in college English courses, was written by Wendy Major. Her paper, written for the English Department of Texas Tech University, contains an extensive bibliography on freewriting and other such techniques. It is reproduced here with the permission of Dr. Fred Kemp, Director of Composition at Texas Tech University.